Friday, July 19: Chamonix
Pushing My Limits
I’m a bit miffed at Kelvin. He is the primary reason that I did not set out for the summit of Mont Blanc this morning. And then he once again elected to not climb due to his stomach/health. It just doesn’t seem fair.
Last night, between the beat of the music from the restaurant/bar across the street and Kelvin watching TV in the adjoining room, I was having trouble falling asleep. So I finally tried John’s idea of half-earplugs. They actually worked quite well, although I was paranoid that they would keep me from hearing my small battery-operated alarm in the morning. At one point when I woke up an hour or two into my sleep, I took them out just in case.
I got up at 6:30, put on sunscreen and got dressed, and I was downstairs for breakfast at 6:55. (Breakfast starts at 7:00.) My stomach wasn’t feeling the greatest (I had had loose bowels the previous night), so I ate a bit lighter than in the past (also because I was short on time). I went back up at 7:20, when Kelvin told me that he was bagging that day. I was back down and ready to go just before 7:30.
We drove to the tram for Aiguille de Midi (Literally “Needle of Noon”), which as usual was a two-stage affair. The peak was perched on the edge above some slopes that were virtual cliffs, so the second cable ran as one long span from start to finish. At the top, there are tunnels through the rock with various touristy things to do. We just made a final pit stop, put on our harnesses and crampons and set out. (I did see a workman outside one of the windows, sitting in a sling above a lot of air, installing something or other—not my choice of job).
Immediately, it was time for my first heart attack of the day. The Aiguille de Midi is the top of a rock spire. The way down to the flats behind is a sinuous trail on an exposed ridge that is just about a foot or two wide in the track. On the right there is a steep snow/ice slope to the bottom. On the left, there is an even steeper slope to some virtual cliffs. If you fell down that side, it would only hurt for an instant. I was not happy.
It was pretty cool inside the rock galleries, and I was worried that with a breeze on the outside, I would be cold going down the ridge. That, at least, was a needless worry. We started the day with a bright blue sky. There was little wind, and wearing my green soft-shell over my gray fleece (over a tee), I was too warm in the sun.
One saving grace is that in the track, climbers had beaten down the snow so that it was a bit of a trough, so that there were little walls on either side of you maybe a foot high. Small consolation. Before we started, Luke had asked for my camera. Shortly after starting, he asked me to turn around for a picture. It was one of those deals where I looked over my shoulder, but I didn’t dare turn my feet around.
To make matters more interesting, about a third or half way down, the ridge hangs a left and gets steeper. So now you are descending this semi-steep ridge, looking over the next bend to the valley a mile below you. Did I mention that I wasn’t happy?
Fortunately, this stretch isn’t *that* long, and then you turn right again and go over to flat area, where my heart could start beating again. I was glad that the worst was now over. I was wrong. I joked with Luke that I guess my stomach wasn’t that bad after all, because if I was going to poop in my pants, I would have done it on that last stretch.
At this point I took off my soft shell, and spent the rest of the day in just my gray fleece, sometimes with the sleeves pulled up and sometimes not.
The track then heads inland (i.e. away from the drops) down a broad ridge to the relative flat beneath. I guess Luke didn’t care for my speed, because he moved from behind me to the front and set a faster pace than I had been doing. I don’t know if the snow was harder than on the Italian side (I think it was), or the basket was working, but I had a much easier time keeping my balance.
Then we slogged across the flat towards a ridge that was the main event for the day. There was a steep (45-degree?) snow slope to the left, and then a rocky mound (the first summit). Then there was a snowy ridge and a bigger rocky mound (the second or main summit). The backside of that was snowy.
I’m *really glad* that I did not know what was in store for me ahead of time.
Traversing left up the snow slope on the left (over the bergschrund) was cake. That kind of slope no longer bothers me. We were just behind a larger party, so just before the top, we hooked a right and “bushwhacked” up to the ridge trail to get ahead of them. Luke said that if we hadn’t we would have been stuck behind them for a half hour or more at the rappel.
This ridge traversal might have bothered me earlier, but now it was relative cake.
Did I mention there was a 20-foot rappel involved? Luke had mentioned that earlier, but it had somehow slipped my mind.
Somehow it had apparently “slipped” Luke’s mind to mention that the back side of this ridge, or at least the rocky mound, was a set of vertical cliffs. Just before the rappel point in particular, the trail goes around some rocks right above the cliffs. Of course, I told Luke, the route *had* to go left over the cliffs instead of right over the slope. Since Luke was belaying me, I had the honor of going first. He told to climb down to that big flat rock, and then head around the corner (over the big drop), to the big flat rock that was the rappel point. He had tied a carabiner into my rope, and I was to hook into a bolt there, and then he would come down.
In my opinion, a 20-foot rappel would not be that big of deal over a nice flat, down at sea level. In this case, below the 20 foot vertical drop, there was a steep snow/ice slope that went down a further 30 feet to a safe spot. Then the slope continued down a couple of hundred more feet to the floor (after passing over the bergschrund). That is to say, a rappel that high above the apparent ground, not to mention at over 10,000 feet), when I’m already half scared out of my wits was a far cry from the mellow rappel that I had been picturing.
At the top of the first peak, I looked ahead and saw the rocky face of the second peak. I saw some climbers working their way up the close enough to be vertical face, and asked him if that was where we were going. He replied “yes”, and I replied “no” followed by an expletive. (Of course, Luke was right. :-)
Luke was in a bit of a rush because of the group (that we had passed) that was coming along behind us. He kept telling me to just lean back and let the rope hold me. I was very tenuous about this. Eventually he gave me a little assist (a small shove), and then I was hanging from the rope. (It is strange, but I just noticed that my fingers are suddenly sweaty as I am typing this. :-).
Once I was hanging from the rope, everything was fine. It was just the transition from standing to hanging that scares the crap out of me.
Once I was down and sitting on a safe spot, Luke dropped the other half of the rope down, and then he rappelled over the cliff, and came down to join me. But the fun didn’t end. The next leg was to traverse across a steep ice chute to the second snow ridge. Luke wrapped the rope around a rock, and used a carabiner to secure it. He then went out on the chute, chopping some steps with his axe. Near the far side of the chute, he put in an ice screw and clipped the rope into that. Then he went around a rock outcrop to his belay point.
Then it was my turn. I had to unclip the rope from the rock, and then walk along his steps to the ice screw. There I had to unclip from the ice screw and unscrew it, being really paranoid that I didn’t drop the fool thing. Then I could go around the rock outcrop and get back to nice solid snowy ridge. (It is funny how I would consider a fairly exposed ridge to be a more restful thing. :-)
Then we traversed to the main summit. I would sort of describe this as vaguely like the Precipice Trail at Acadia, except that this was a technical climb straight up, without walkways ladders, railings, etc.
I’ve found that normally I swear very rarely, but when stressed out (particularly by heights), I swear quite a bit, depending on how stressed I am. If I am only majorly stressed out, I tend to use the S-word. But if I ‘m even more stressed out, I use the F-word. The trip over this ridge was chocked full with the F-word. I sounded like a very unimaginative sailor with a poor vocabulary.
Luke climbed up a small snow slope to the base of the rocks, where he took off his gloves. He suggested that I might want to as well. Then he proceeded to climb up maybe 50 feet. Then it was my turn.
He told me to not follow his route but to go up further to the left. I angled up the snow, but he told me to go further to my left. I took off my gloves, and started up the rocks. The only saving grace was that the rock here is granite, and it tends to fracture into sharp points which give good hand-holds.
At one point, I was stymied by a 5 foot vertical section that didn’t seem to offer any holds. Luke encouraged me with a “just climb up”. I responded with something like “climb up this????” He looked down and then told me to go one around one rock, further over to my left. That was much easier.
A bit later, I grabbed a large rock (maybe 2-1/2 to 3 feet in diameter), and I found that it shifted! It was just sitting there, not attached very well to the mountain. Even worse, the rope was sort of hooked under it. I very carefully unhooked the rope and then let go of the rock. I was half expecting that when I stopped holding it, that it would slide further and fall crashing down the slope. It didn’t, but seemed very tenuous.
I then had to scramble up some loose dirt behind the rock, trying not to push the dirt down and push the rock off the edge. Eventually I climbed up to Luke’s belay stance (accompanied by a cacophony of “colorful metaphors”). I was in a fairly secure spot (not that I felt particularly secure), and Luke wrapped the rope around a large pointy rock and proceeded to climb further. I managed to get some photos from this spot, although it was more of the “hold the camera out, point it in the right general direction, and hope for the best).
(In the picture below, note that sheer cliffs just below that first snow ridge and the first peak/rappel point.)
Luke told me to make sure that his rope paid out cleanly as he climbed. I did OK for a while, but then a bight (tangle) got past me. I tried shaking the rope, but I couldn’t clear it. I yelled up to Luke that the rope was tangled and he would have to lower it a few feet before I could reach it. Despite getting a good echo from the cliffs to my left (that I had earlier climbed above), apparently Luke did not hear me, and the tangle slowly moved further and further above me.
Then I got a terrifying thought: I thought that the tangle was so close to me so that when I started, it would be between Luke and myself. Then if I *were* to fall, and that caused the tangle to suddenly de-tangle, I could fall a dozen or more feet (onto the nice pointy rocks up which I climbed).
So I was twice as paranoid climbing this next pitch. The rope ended up not being an issue. I don’t know if the tangle made it up to Luke, or if he otherwise cleared it, or whether I just lucked out and didn’t fall, but it wasn’t an apparent issue.
I finally made it up to Luke’s belay spot. It was the top of the “cliff” portion, with just a rock pile up to the summit. I sprawled into the middle of this area (well away from the edge), and rested. Luke borrowed my camera, got some picts and some of me. He was concerned with the weather (it was my now mostly cloudy, and the clouds were building), so he said that he was considering this as “topping out” and would skip going to the true summit. I heartily agreed.
At this point, I looked at my left hand, and I found that at some point along the way I managed to slice my skin in a few spots. There were some flaps of skin and some blood, but until that time, I hadn’t noticed. I guess I was rather “distracted” during the climb.
Fortunately, the backside of this second summit was a big snow slope, so it was reasonably straight-forward to descend. The only thing that bothered me a bit (although not *nearly* as much as the stuff on the rocks) was that the slope was sort of like an upside-down bowl. So the further I descended (once again in the lead), the steeper the slope became. Still it was *much* preferable to the rest of the slope.
As an aside, at one point Luke told me that he’s had clients bail after the rappel. That is, they were lowered down and/or down climbed the snow slope below the rappel point, and thus avoided the rock climb that followed.
I wanted to stop and get some pictures, but Luke nixed that idea. We were sort of under a large serac (think large cube of snow/ice, maybe 50-100 feet in size hanging out of the slope). Earlier I had asked Luke if some trail of disturbed snow I saw ahead were avalanches, and he said that no, they were caused by falling seracs. Luke was concerned that we were too close to that big serac, and so he wanted to put some distance between us and it before stopping.
We got to the bottom of the slope and set out across the flat. I stopped hyperventilating and began to calm down. We slogged across the flat and then had the final “le slog”—there were several hundred feet that we needed to climb to get back to the tram station, including going up that scary ridge.
It was a basic slog up the slope. We kept up a slower but steady pace and just ground up. The scary ridge was much better than in the morning. For one thing, since I was going up the ridge, I was looking into the snow in front of me, rather than looking out into space, or down past the snow to the valley floor below. Also, we were climbing in a fog, so I couldn’t see that far down anyway. Still, I kept my attention (and my vision) on the snow right in front of me. With that, it really wasn’t that bad.
Then it was just a matter of taking off our gear, packing it up, fighting our way through the gift shop, and down to the tram. It was pretty full of tourists, so we missed the first tram and had to crowd into the next one. Looking at the large drop just below Aiguille de Midi, I was *really* glad it wasn’t a chairlift.
In short order, we came out at the valley floor, and the day’s adventure was over. It was almost a surreal experience to transition so quickly between two totally different worlds (snow, ice, and exposure above, and civilization below). We probably got down around 1 or maybe a bit earlier, and stopped at a coffee shop where Luke had a beer and I had a cafe au lait and a croissant.
While we were there, I asked Luke about how I would go about seeing if the huts had any cancelations/vacancies for immediately after our trip. (The weather was supposed to markedly improve after tonight/tomorrow.) It seemed to me that finding a vacancy would be more difficult than finding a guide, and it wasn’t clear to me whether I should check the huts first, look for a guide first, or do both at the same time.
Luke said that he would check around with some friends of his and get back to me at dinner. He thought that I was very capable of summiting Mont Blanc, but the main stumbling block was a combination of my climbing partner and the weather. Another interesting comment that he made at some point was that he thought that I was very capable of climbing the Matterhorn if I wanted. I would swear up a storm and curse all the way up, but I could do it; not that I had the foggiest intention of ever doing such a thing.
Another interesting comment that he made (I think while we were still on top) was when he was talking about me pushing my limits and building my skills with these climbs. I replied that I probably would never again use these skills, that I considered this trip to be my swan song. I had previous considered Huayna Potosi as my last big mountain, but then I decided to try one more easier mountain, Mont Blanc. Luke replied that he thought Mont Blanc was a lot harder than Huayna Potosi. It is about 4,000 feet lower, but it is a much more technical climb. There are two main routes that guides take clients like me up. One is more technical, and the other is (I’m guessing) either longer or higher. For example, the technical route features an ice climb. The ice is steep but not vertical (I don’t know how tall). The guide would climb up and then belay the client up. This would be an ice axe/front-point deal. It wasn’t steep enough that you needed an ice-climbing axe, a normal ice-axe would suffice. If he was taking me up, that would be the route he would use. That made me feel good.
At other times he kept asking me if I was having fun. I would say that the climb on the first day was “fun”, but I wouldn’t call what we did today “fun”. I feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment at having done it, but I wouldn’t call it “fun”.
At some point along that ridge with the rapel, I was thinking about and talking to Luke about an incident that happened to me many years earlier, and an associated idea.
Back when I was in college, I went to Zion National Park, and there I went on a Naturalist-guided hike to Angel’s Landing. This is a high rocky knob that is accessible by a very narrow knife’s edge, with virtually shear 3,000 foot drops on either side. I made it all the way to the end, but it was very difficult, and on a number of places I was crawling on my hands and knees.
Talking to the naturalist on Angel’s Landing, I commented that she had probably never gone on this hike with such a coward before. She said that on the contrary, she thought I was very brave because I was afraid and yet still did it.
The idea, which has obviously stuck with me til today, is that bravery is not the absense of fear. Bravery is being afraid and yet conquering that fear. If you are not afraid of doing something and do it, that doesn’t require bravery. Bravery is really being afraid of doing something and then managing to continue doing it anyway. Without fear, there is no bravery.
That was why I had a feeling of accomplishment. I was faced with some very difficult tasks (at least difficult for me due to my phobia), but I managed to overcome that fear and to succeed at those tasks. I wouldn’t say that I had fun doing so, but the fact that I was able to not give up and finish those tasks gave me a great feeling of accomplishment.
I also found this trip interesting from a timing point of view. On my previous trips, there was something scheduled most of the time, and the hiking took up a good part of the day. It was odd to do a satisfactory amount of climbing and to be done around lunch time, with the rest of the time to play tourist (or to write up this saga :-).
Back at the hotel, I found Kelvin lying on the bed watching TV, which is where I left him that morning (although without the TV). I first took my stuff out to dry, and then I took a shower (which felt really good). I found that my hand didn’t look nearly as bad with the dried blood washed off (although drying with the towel afterwards lifted a couple of the flaps). Of course, after this I had to mop the whole bathroom floor with a towel. That shower design still seems to me to be a really brain-damaged way to make a bathroom.
I uploaded the pictures to the laptop, and I was about to start typing up today’s events, when I suddenly realized that I hadn’t yet had lunch and that I was hungry. So I set out in search of food.
I don’t find the restaurants here nearly as scary as I did the first day. I found one place that I liked, and when the waitress came around, I asked for a menu. She told me that they had just stopped serving lunch. So I wandered around some more and ended up at what had been my original second choice.
The waitress spoke good English with what I thought was a British accent, so I asked her if she was from England. She replied that she was local, but that her mother was Australian.
I ordered a sandwich, a glass of Chardonnay (to celebrate surviving today’s brushes with imminent death :-) and some tap water.
There is a river that flows through town, although in the section near here it is more like a canal. There is sort of a large pedestrian mall along the sides, along with large sections that are covered, where you might not even notice the river at all. It is a nice place to hang out. As is quite common this time of the year, the restaurant had a lot of tables out on the plaza, and few if any people ate indoors.
Eating by myself, I did a lot of “people-watching”. One thing that I noticed for the first time was a fair number of instances of the French style of kissing each cheek. It was mostly between the waitresses and some diners, and also between some presumed friends who meeting at the restaurant. I have to guess that the people that the waitresses kissed were personal friends that happened to be eating/drinking there, but I really have no idea.
I did notice a disturbingly large amount of smoking going on, although fortunately for me, for the most part the smokers near me were either downwind or cross-wind from me. There were few upwind.
Then I came back to the hotel and started writing this up.
One more Windows annoyance is that despite having just installed a zillion updates a day or two ago, it again wanted me to log off so that it could install more. I didn’t, but I left the computer on while I went off for lunch. When I got back, I found that it had logged off automatically. Good thing I saved my file before leaving...
Stupid razzer frazzer hotel internet. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant (buffet special) because it had just rained and was threatening more. I had brought my netbook to dinner to show the guide the pictures from today. After dinner, I tried to connect to the internet and was pleasantly surprised to immediate get connected. I updated my status on Facebook and went to check my email. That page hung, and I found that it had dropped my connection. I tried reconnecting, but it refused.
I’m wondering what the failure mechanism is. I had thought that the router wifi was saturated, and so it wasn’t accepting new connections, but that theory wouldn’t explain it dropping the connection. I wonder whether the issue is that I’m connecting to the hotel router (which seems to be the case), but the hotel’s connection to the internet keeps going up or down.
It is hard to make good plans for tomorrow’s climb not knowing whether Kelvin would be joining us or not. Luke couldn’t find any guides to take me up afterwards, so that plan is dead. Luke broached one plan to get out at 5:30, catch the 6:00 tram, and boogie towards the summit and see how far we could get before we have to turn back. It *is* possible to do it as a single day hike.
The problems with that idea, however, is that it presupposes that Kelvin will bag tomorrow as well. If he was fit enough to come, we would need a plan-B, and we wouldn’t need to get up at such an unearthly hour. Also, while I’m climbing fairly strongly (much more strongly than Kelvin), when I was with the “pro” climbers in Bolivia, I was decidedly middle-of-the-pack: there was a group that was faster than me, and one that was slower. I can’t believe that I’ve improved my conditioning that much in the past two years. So I am not certain that I would be able to summit and return in one day. I was not keen on killing myself if I were to only get an hour or two from the summit and turn around.
I think if not for Kelvin (or equivalently if he announced tonight that he would not be climbing), I might be inclined to try for a heroic summit attempt, but such is not the case.
So the real plan is to aim for the first summit that you pass on the way to the Mont Blanc summit (the first of two). This will be for the most part just a snow climb, similar to the first day, although with a little rock at the end. This will be different from previous climbs in that it will mark the highest point we’ll achieve on this trip.
The previous plan for tomorrow was to descend to the flats again, go up a small mound beside Aiguille de Midi, cross a snow ridge, and then rock climb up to the top of the aiguille. Supposedly this isn’t as hard as what I did today, but it is longer/higher. Personally, I was not keen on that plan. I had more than enough rock climbing today, and doing more of the same did not thrill me. I would not be “having fun”. Also, I seriously question whether Kelvin (if he came) would be up to the challenge.
I hate to say it, but I’m hoping that Kelvin bags again. It would make the trip more fun for me (we could ascend at a more reasonable pace), and I would be more comfortable going down that initial ridge with Luke right behind me rather than having Kelvin right behind me.
I prefer the current plan, which should be more fun than scaring the crap out of me again. It is a bit of a more mellow ending for the adventure, which is fine with me. Also it will be different from the previous climbs as it will reach a new height mark for the trip, and it let me experience at least the first third-ish of what a summit climb would be.
Now if there was just some way to get down to the flats without going down the big scary ramp... Joking aside, I hope that I don’t have nightmares about it when I’m trying to sleep tonight.
Random note: After the first day, I’ve been using the camelbak rather than the Nalgene bottles. It has been working out quite well. It isn’t cold enough for the mouthpiece to freeze, and I really appreciate the ability to sip water as we walk along. We don’t take too many longer stops, where I would be able to dig out a water bottle, and a lot of places (particularly today) are too scary for me to try digging out a water bottle.
Some stats on today’s hike:
Start at Aiguille du Midi: 7:38 Start up Ridge: 8:27 Rapel: 8:52 Start of Climb: 9:25 Main Summit: 9:50 Off of Ridge 10:05 Time on Ridge 1:38
So the climb along the ridge didn’t last too long, only about an hour and a half; but it was densly packed with maximum fear.